Touchstones, writing quests and British weird — The Ada Lovelace Conversations #4

The Arthur C. Clarke Award’s interviewer in residence Anne Charnock talks to author and critic Nina Allan.

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Award-winning author Nina Allan had fifty published short stories to her name before completing her first novel, The Race, nominated for the Red Tentacle for the best novel of 2014 at the Kitschies, the British Fantasy Award for best novel 2014, and the 2014 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Her second novel, The Rift,has just been published in July this year. I’m delighted that Nina joins me in a conversation about the writing process, literary touchstones and writing quests.

ANNE: I have long been in awe that you find time to review so many books on your website, The Spider’s House. And now you’ve taken on the challenge of chairing the Shadow Jury of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. I wonder how this non-fiction writing might affect your fiction — if, for example, it helps you to situate your own work in the expanding field of science fiction. Or do you put such considerations aside when you face the blank page?

NINA: Chairing the Shadow Clarke has been a fascinating, unmissable experience, and has affected my own thinking and writing much more than I anticipated. The sheer investment of time and intellectual energy involved in this project has meant that I’ve been thinking about the Shadow Jury, in one way or another, pretty much constantly since we first announced it back in February.

Reading so much science fiction — and nothing else! — over an extended period of time has definitely confirmed me in the knowledge that the kind of speculative fiction that interests me most is the kind that exists in the borderlands between genre SFF and the literary mainstream — novels and stories that don’t care very much about genre, in other words. From my own reading I would pick out Martin MacInnes’s Infinite Ground, Don DeLillo’s Zero K, Matt Suddain’s Hunters & Collectors and Aliya Whiteley’s The Arrival of Missives as the kind of works that genuinely thrill me as a reader and as a writer, in the risks they are willing to take both in the choice of subject matter and the manner in which it is presented. I still believe that science fiction has an innate and unique ability to be radical as a literature and it’s these kinds of radical works that I will continue to seek out in the future.

I think the area I’ve grown most as a result of being involved with the shadow jury though is in my work as a critic. Some of the discussions I’ve had with my fellow jurors about the role of criticism in general and the forms it can take have been inspirational. I don’t think I’d fully recognized how various and how individual the art of criticism truly is, or how massively we will be influenced in the way we think and write about books by the personal assumptions and prejudices we each bring to the table. Not that this is a bad thing — I believe that writing criticism can and should be as individually creative an act as writing fiction — but we do each need to acknowledge our own biases, and to examine them fruitfully. Criticism should be exciting, dynamic, engaged. I’m very much of the school of thought that a critical essay can be enthralling as a piece of writing even if you haven’t read the book or books that are being discussed. Criticism should inspire you to read more — and to read more widely. More specifically, I also believe that properly engaged criticism is vital to the intellectual health and continuing relevance of the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Without a critical hinterland, a literature atrophies. My brightest hope for the Shadow Clarke is that it will inspire others — to read criticism, to write it, to broaden their perspective on what science fiction is and can do.

Nina Allan

ANNE: I felt a tad disappointed that Don DeLillo’s Zero K didn’t reach either the official or shadow shortlist. But that disappointment reflects my particular interest in visual art — this book seems to take the reader through a succession of bizarre art installations! So, Nina, as a shadow juror for the Arthur C. Clarke Award — a Sharke! — have you reached any conclusion about how much science is necessary in a novel to qualify the work as one of science fiction?

NINA: I think many of the prejudices and restrictive attitudes around science fiction — especially throughout earlier phases of SF’s development as a literature — have arisen directly from the wilful misinterpretation of that word, science. Science means simply knowledge — a word and a concept that can be applied equally across a vast range of subject matter. Linguistics, politics, social systems, philosophy, psychiatry, anthropology, folklore, medicine, music, coding, mathematics, nuclear physics, cosmology, theology, nanotechnology, geography — these are all sciences, and of course there are dozens more. I think the emphasis on what have been termed the ‘hard’ sciences to the exclusion or denigration of other branches of knowledge has been to science fiction’s critical detriment. What most characterises science fiction is the exploration of ideas. The idea of restricting science fiction to a particular branch or stripe of knowledge is a nonsense.

ANNE: I’d like to turn to your fiction, Nina, and firstly I’d like to raise a point made by Stephen King in On Writing. I recently reread this book and although he gives great advice throughout, I was curious about one of his comments on the subject of theme. He feels that the theme of a novel is something that emerges in the first draft or after the first draft, and can then be enhanced in subsequent reworking. But for me the theme, or concept, comes first, before I start outlining and plotting a piece of fiction. How do you view the importance of theme? Does it vary from one writing project to another?

NINA: I love Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve read it several times, just for the pleasure of King’s voice, and it’s the one book I recommend unequivocally when people ask me if ‘how to’ guides for writers are any good. As a new writer, what On Writing offered me, most of all, was the permission to do things my way. Many of the writing guides I’d read previously seemed very keen on pre-planning, on writing chapter summaries and on knowing exactly what was going to happen before you started. This made me feel nervous because I instinctively felt that those methods weren’t going to work for me. What King seemed to be saying was ‘screw that — there are no rules. Do what feels right’. It was like a breath of fresh air.

I don’t remember King’s exact words on theme versus plot — but I do know that plot has always been the element of narrative I try to think about least consciously when I’m making a start on a new piece of work. I’ve always started with character — or to put it more precisely, with a particular character in a particular situation. I think about what might be worrying that character, what problems they face, how they might react, what they might know. Theme tends to arrive on its own, in a somewhat stealthy manner, out of these deliberations. Theme is important to me, as an anchor — as the box everything fits inside, if you like. Plot is something I have to trust will attach itself to the theme as I go along. The more I write the more the plot begins to define itself. Often I won’t know how a story is going to work itself out until I’m at least half way through. But this is why second drafts are so important to my working process.

When I start my second draft, I begin writing the book again from the beginning, essentially — only this time I know where it’s going, I know what the plot entails, I know how things end. Which means I can foreground certain details, strengthen certain narrative threads. I love second drafts! They are so much less scary.

ANNE: Like you, I let the narrative unfold during the drafting process. I edit at a sentence level as I go along — which can be very slow! However, this does mean that when I reach the end of the manuscript I don’t need to redraft from the beginning. For my latest novel, I took a different approach, with less on-the-go editing, and I kept a spreadsheet of the narrative development, which was important because the novel has a highly fragmented structure.

I know from your own writing, Nina, that you’re interested in fragmentation. I’d like to know what draws you to this type of structure.

NINA: I imagine your spreadsheets to be a little like Nabokov’s famous index cards — a way of examining characters and events in isolation from their story. A fascinating approach.

I first encountered fragmented narratives through the work of Keith Roberts and his great novel Pavane, also Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. This would have been in my early to mid-teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction pretty indiscriminately. Most of the stuff I read then — Heinlein, Silverberg, Asimov, Pohl — has fallen by the wayside for me, but both Pavane and Roadside Picnic remain touchstone works. Thinking about them now, I realise that when I first read these novels I didn’t think of them as ‘fragmented narratives’, I simply accepted this method of telling a story as something that was natural and intrinsic to those books, and got on with enjoying them. And yet the form of these narratives did make a powerful impact — something about the thrill of discovery, the way my own imagination played a vital role in linking everything together. I wouldn’t have analysed it that way at the time, but I think I found something very satisfying in the idea of the reader interacting with the writer to create a complete picture.

Fragmented narratives are often described as being complex, and of course they can be, but I happen to believe that large numbers of readers actively enjoy the element of individual participation this approach encourages. Novels such as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven have found immense popular appeal. Similarly, movies such as Paul Haggis’s Crash and Alejandro Inarritu’s Babel, which both involve intricately interlinking storylines, have enjoyed Oscar-winning success. I think readers can actually tolerate narrative complexity to a far greater degree than the publishing industry sometimes gives them credit for. One of the reasons crime fiction is so popular is because readers feel directly involved with what’s happening on the page, and I think the clue-hunting aspect of fragmented narratives performs this same function.

ANNE: I like the comparison you make with crime fiction! I do have fun introducing clues and connections when I’m drafting a fragmented novel. I’ve always liked writers who play around with structure. So the novels that come to mind are Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Specimen Days, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Adam Robert’s The Thing Itself, Sara Taylor’s The Shore, Louisa Hall’s Speak. When I start to list them — and I could list so many more — I begin to see how popular this form is among writers.

One of my quests in writing speculative fiction is to create characters who engage the reader on an emotional level. I don’t want the reader to envisage the future in a detached way. For me, an exemplar novel — one that’s compelling in an emotional sense — is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I wondered if you could identify your own writing quest, and if there’s a single novel that would indicate your goal.

NINA: You mention David Mitchell here — a writer who is now well known for extending the life of his characters beyond the frame of a single novel — and indeed this is something I enjoy doing myself. I first experimented with recurring characters in my story cycle The Silver Wind, where the same characters crop up time and again, although not always in the same roles. (Stephen King has a lot of fun with a similar idea in his twinned novels Desperation and The Regulators, which are favourites for me amongst his work.). I have a story in the forthcoming Titan anthology New Fears that features a character I first wrote about more than ten years ago in the title novella from my first collection, A Thread of Truth. I guess that if a character interested you enough to write about them in the first place, it’s only natural to want to find out more about them, to broaden and deepen their narrative.

Never Let Me Go is a fascinating choice for your ‘quest’ novel, humane and chilling and very much in the tradition of British speculative fiction — I’m thinking of novels like D. G. Compton’s The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, a key novel of the SF New Wave which examines anxieties about future technological development through a very human lens.

I do like this idea of having a writing quest! I suppose if I had to pin down what it is that I’m going after with my writing, it would be the preservation of memories, of moments in time, and how memory is always this peculiar and sometimes problematic blend of objective ‘truth’ and subjective worldview, which is by its nature partial, and often unreliable. I am in love with the weirdness at the heart of mimesis, and the writer who encapsulates this in her writing most perfectly of all for me is Iris Murdoch. There is something exalted about her work, a sense of heightened reality that shines a light on ordinary objects and occurrences and reveals their hidden magic — and madness. If I had to choose one of her novels to take with me to a desert island it would be The Book and the Brotherhood, which I’ve read four times already and could start reading again tomorrow with equal enjoyment.

I would pair that novel with works like The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison and White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi as examples of British Weird, a tradition that I feel is central to my own practice and allegiance.

ANNE: I’m pleased you mention Iris Murdoch. I’m also a fan of Doris Lessing’s mainstream novels including The Fifth Child and its sequel Ben in the World. These are disorientating and distressing reads, almost fantastical, because as the narratives unfold you don’t know what or who to believe. It’s rather like the slipperiness of memory that you refer to. I feel these two novels anticipated Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin. We can’t seem to nail the truth in these novels.

So, you’ve chosen your books for the desert island! I played this game at my local book group’s Christmas party. I chose Michael Cunningham’s short novel, The Hours. I do regard this novel as a perfect example of a fragmented structure, linked as it is to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (I’d need to take her novel too!). I’d spend my time on the desert island working out all the connections between the two novels, and lapping up Cunningham’s beautiful writing style.

I know some writers don’t like to talk about their work in progress, but can you tell me about the novel you’ve recently completed, and any other fiction in the pipeline?

NINA: That’s an interesting point you make about the way Doris Lessing’s ‘Ben’ novels anticipate Shriver’s Kevin and I agree absolutely. An aspect of Lessing’s career that is not discussed anywhere near enough either within the mainstream or in genre circles is her lifelong fascination with speculative ideas. There are the two novels you mention, which as you say teeter on the brink of the fantastic, her Shikasta series, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Memoirs of a Survivor (both of which are briefly discussed in my own novel The Race) and also later works such as The Cleft and Mara and Dan. I’ve noticed an unwillingness within genre communities to admit the importance of writers like Lessing and of course Margaret Atwood, to dismiss them as dabblers or ‘tourists’, an attitude which is frankly ridiculous when it could be argued that half of Lessing’s output is speculative, when Atwood has not only produced a novel — The Handmaid’s Tale — which will stand as one of the core works of the SF genre for decades to come, but has also, with the Maddadam trilogy and now The Heart Goes Last, dedicated the whole of the past decade more or less exclusively to writing science fiction.

Science fiction has much to draw from the mainstream in terms of depth and craft, just as mimetic literature is finding itself reinvigorated by speculative ideas — ideas a lot of mainstream writers wouldn’t have been seen dead trying out even two decades ago. Literature is reactive as well as proactive. As writers, we see something someone else is doing and immediately begin to consider how we might bring something like it into our own work. We’re magpies! Reading widely — and letting that reading have its way with us — is a large part of how we learn to advance as writers.

My second novel is called The Rift. It began as an alien abduction story but morphed into something different as I was writing. It’s the story of two sisters, Selena and Julie. Julie disappears without a trace when she is seventeen, leaving her parents and younger sister Selena alone to bear the loss. Unable to absorb the strain, the family fragments, and when Julie unexpectedly returns twenty years later, claiming to have spent time on another planet, Selena is left feeling that the life she has lived in the meantime has been a lie. It’s a novel about memory, and absence, but there is some weird alien stuff in there, too. The Rift is published by Titan Books on July 11th.

I have recently completed the final draft of a new novel that actually began life a decade ago in the form of a particular character named Andrew Garvie, who makes dolls. The book has been through vast changes since I first had the idea for it –in fact I’ve rewritten it from the ground up at least three times — but Andrew has always been the story’s heart and soul. I would describe this novel as Weird rather than science fiction, although there is some science fiction in it. Mainly it is about inheritance, and how creativity acts as a bulwark against oppression. Also, fairy tales! I hope to be sharing more information about this novel in the near future.

ANNE: On the subject of magpies, I agree! We advance by reading widely, and reacting to other writers’ work. Appropriation is a minor theme in my novel Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind — how all the arts are enriched and energized by revisiting the past, by borrowing from other art forms, and using other artists’ work as a springboard.

Many thanks, Nina, for a great conversation and good luck with The Rift and your next book.

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The Ada Lovelace Conversations are a collaborative project between the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature and Ada Lovelace Day, an international celebration day of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), profiling women writers of Science Fiction and beyond.

The Ada Lovelace Conversations links: #1 and #2 and #3


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Nina’s stories have appeared regularly in the British speculative fiction magazines Interzone, Black Static and Crimewave, and have featured in many anthologies, including Best Horror of the Year #2 and #6, The Year’s Best SF #28, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012 and 2013, and Best British Fantasy 2014. Her story ‘Angelus’ won the Aeon Award in 2007, and her novella Spin won the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Short Fiction in 2014. Her novella The Gateway was a 2014 finalist in the Shirley Jackson Awards, and the French edition of my story cycle The Silver Wind (published by Editions Tristram as Complications) won the Grand Prix de L’imaginaire (Best Translated Work, short fiction category) in 2014. Her novel The Race was shortlisted for the 2015 BSFA Award, and for the Kitschies Red Tentacle.

Her second novel The Rift, also from Titan, is out now.

Anne Charnock’s writing career began in journalism (The Guardian, New Scientist, International Herald Tribune). Her debut novel, A Calculated Life, was a finalist for the 2013 Philip K. Dick Award and the 2013 Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. This year sees the publication of The Enclave, set within the world of A Calculated Life (NewCon Press). In addition, her third novel, Dreams Before the Start of Time is published by 47North, and her short story “A Good Citizen” is included in the anthology 2084 (Unsung Stories).


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